Over the past few years, the primary focus in our athletic program has been building team chemistry with the coaching staff. After hearing Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching speak, it was apparent that student-athletes also had to be involved.
Amazingly, 500 student-athletes attended a session on team building the day before school started and they instantly had a different swagger. Energized, the athletes shook hands with teachers, and they were happy to be in school. A transformation took place and they wanted more.
When COVID-19 shut down our spring sports season, the lack of contact with student-athletes was a concern. Would the team building enthusiasm dissipate? The incoming seniors had to step up as leaders and role models to help establish the direction of the athletic program.
We thought perhaps this was the time do a book study with 10 diverse seniors representing various sports, who were selected based on leadership and their ability to deal with adversity. Also, they had the capability to communicate and share what they learned.
The Book Selection
Since the Team Captain’s Leadership Manual by Jeff Janssen was broken into a 10- week program, this was an ideal choice. Also, Pat Summitt wrote the foreword to the book. More than winning, Coach Summitt believed the job was to develop her players into responsible leaders. And this was the exact goal for the seniors at Taylor High School.
The Book Study and the Focus on Leadership
Janssen’s book introduces a lesson first with a focus on how to react and the opportunity to provide input. The plan was to spend an hour reviewing the chapter and to start a dialogue with the group. It was important for each handpicked athlete to understand that they were valued and their input was necessary to make the athletic department better. To do this, the athletes had to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
An individualized handwritten letter, a copy of the book and a $2 bill formed the invitation which I personally delivered to the homes of the athletes. This was done so that each student knew that his or her commitment was appreciated. During the drop-offs, it was also an opportunity to share the vision of the program and to let parents know that their child was important. This was a rewarding opportunity for me and one which needs to be done more often.
During the first session, I asked the athletes what they wanted to accomplish and if they had any questions. After about 10 minutes, the important question arose: “What is the deal with the $2 bill?” lt is similar to a leader, which is unique with a design like no other bill.
For the first few weeks, I led the conversation. After this point, the members of the group were charged with leading the discussion and covering the weekly topic. Impressively, the seniors took this responsibility very seriously and leaders emerged. If you give kids the opportunity, they will capitalize on it.
Meetings Moved to Zoom with COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit, the first Zoom meeting was set up by one of the athletes. And this format allowed everyone to be comfortable and yet continue the discussions.
When the state relaxed the restrictions, I asked the athletes if they would like to hold the next meeting at school. The unanimous answer was, “Yes, please.” These kids needed this opportunity to begin to feel some sense of normalcy.
The first meeting was held outside on a bright sunny morning. These kids had not seen each other for more than three months and their reactions were priceless. The group spent more than an hour talking about the difficulties of coping with COVID-19. The book did not matter that day – sharing life lessons derived from a virus was more important.
Learning About the Athletes and the Program
From the very beginning, I expected the athletes to be honest. A leader cannot be afraid to express concerns and talk about uncomfortable subjects.
Occasionally, parents in the stands yell at the officials or even the players on the field. The kids actually hear this and do not like it. They want it to stop. They challenged me to be better as an administrator to deal with these fans and to hold them accountable.
Also, young people want coaches to communicate more with the captains or leaders of their teams. Athletes want to be leaders, but need guidance and direction from their coach.
Athletes do respect what I do as an athletic director and they know I will listen. Students appreciate when you ask for their ideas and input.
Most importantly, I learned this group cares about each other and the entire athletics program. For example, I received an email from a member of our group saying he would be unable to attend our weekly meeting due to a family emergency. Not knowing what happened, the Zoom meeting went forward. After the meeting, I responded to a text message from another parent asking if I was aware of what happened to the family.
The younger brother of a group member had suffered a brain aneurysm and had been hospitalized in serious condition. With this information, I asked the group to check on their friend, take him to lunch and stay in touch. The power of support was in full force and this group demonstrated leadership at its best.
When the younger brother passed away, this added more intensity, and the group was suffering. I sent an email to the group to ask if the weekly meeting should be cancelled. Unanimously, they wanted to meet. The chapter to be discussed was Encourager, Team Builder.
Shortly before the start of the meeting, the brother walked in and was warmly greeted. I started by saying it had been a sad week and that we lost a tremendous individual. At this point, I asked if anyone had anything to add. This young man said, “Mr. Herges, we are here to talk about being leaders, let’s talk about that.” The ensuing discussion was the best of the entire summer. It was obvious we had accomplished something special. That day, these 10 individuals touched my heart, and they were leaders beyond any expectation.
Making the Initiative Work
Not only would I do this again, I am already putting together a list of names for the next group. COVID-19 did not allow us to accomplish all the established goals that were developed as a group. It is important to continue to build on the momentum that has been created with this book study.
It is vital for athletic administrators to be visible to student- athletes and to be available. How you react, speak and carry yourself will be reflected by your athletes.
Always involve your student leaders. You work for the students, and all decisions should be based on what is best for the student-athlete.
Larry Herges is the athletic director at Taylor High School in Cleves, Ohio.